University of Maryland students set up shelters in Haiti

Timothy Cole, left, of Fort Washington and Bonal Horelien of College Park build a prototype earth bag structure March 7 in College Park.
Timothy Cole, left, of Fort Washington and Bonal Horelien of College Park build a prototype earth bag structure March 7 in College Park. (David Hill/the Gazette)
By David Hill
The Gazette
Thursday, March 18, 2010

On March 7 in College Park's Calvert Hills neighborhood, Desta Anyiwo -- a 23-year-old student at the University of Maryland at College Park -- was being peppered with questions from curious onlookers.

He explained that he and a group of volunteers were building an eight-by-eight-foot structure through earth bag construction -- the use of heavy bags of dirt, sand and other materials as building blocks for temporary housing. A completed structure, he said, can withstand heavy rain and high winds.

After a major earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, killing more than 200,000 people, Anyiwo decided earth bag construction might be cheap and reliable enough to help the victims, many of whom are homeless or live in tents. On Saturday, he and about 20 other people left for Haiti, where they are now spending a week demonstrating, assisting and teaching Haitians how to build shelters with the earth bags.

"They're about to have a rainy season right now [in Haiti]," Anyiwo said March 7. He helped organize the trip with alumni and faculty from Howard University in the District, some of whom had previous humanitarian experience in Haiti. "Some people are raising money to send tents down . . . [but] this is a way more effective way of helping people."

About 13 University of Maryland and three Howard students were scheduled to make the trip, along with a handful of engineering professionals. Their main goal is to teach earth bag construction to Haitian residents and students in hopes that those residents will be able to teach others to use the method for years to come.

Earth bag structures have been built in Haiti and in parts of Africa and the southwestern United States, but still are relatively rare, said Tom Marable, a professional engineer on the project. Anyiwo's group spent three days in College Park building a test shelter to make sure they had experience with the method.

The earth bags were flattened and carefully placed, with each layer of bags held together by barbed wire and plaster or stucco. Finished structures are usually topped with a tarp, bamboo or thatch roof.

"[The materials] depend on what's available in their area," said Vicki Bleus, president of Washington, D.C.-based Phoenix Contractors Inc., which has lent engineering guidance to the project. "If they're near [Haiti's capital city] Port-au-Prince, they might have access to crushed rubble."

The group planned to bring about 4,000 polypropylene bags to Haiti, but all building materials will have to be found in the country. The College Park prototype required about 400 bags of dirt, so they hoped to leave for Haiti with enough bags to do a week's worth of demonstrations in the country.

Each student paid about $800 for the trip, while the professionals paid $1,000 each, Bleus said. Anyiwo said he plans a second trip to Haiti this summer.

The trip has added personal meaning for University of Maryland sophomore Joshua Jean, one of several Haitian Americans who have volunteered. This is his first time visiting his parents' native country.

"Most of my family is still there, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to help," Jean said, adding that his relatives survived the quake. "Everyone's okay, but still, there's extensive damage and there's going to need to be repairs for years to come."

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